In June 1998, during my first visit to Malaysia, I walked from my hotel in Kuala Lumpur to the city’s Night Market, something akin to our Wednesday Night Market in downtown Santa Rosa, but much bigger.
The Night Market did not attract tourists, who were across town at what was known as the Central Market. I was with locals, along with scores of crows squawking from the trees that hung over dozens of food stalls like giant lacy canopies. Retail vendors offered everything from sandals to CDs, and people of all ages enjoyed the sultry night and the heavy saturated tropical air, their voices mingling with the Malaysian music blasted over tinny speakers.
I walked along the rows, attracting curious looks and searching for the most interesting foods, preferably things I didn’t recognize or had never eaten. The aromas hovering around one stall were particularly evocative, and I was surprised to discover that they offered a single item: corn on the cob, each hot ear plucked from an enormous cauldron of simmering water and covered with the finely ground white pepper that is common on every Malaysian table.
I ponied up the equivalent of about 50 cents, took my corn and walked to a nearby stoop to eat, though I rose nearly as quickly as I sat because an enormous cockroach, a good 3 inches long, was already occupying the cement step. After regaining my composure, I was nibbling the most delicious corn I’ve ever tasted, so fresh and rich that it needed no butter to enhance it. Before the night was over, I ate three, maybe four, ears. I ate nothing else that evening, headed back to my hotel and soon drifted into a luxurious, satisfied sleep.
A few days ago, as I worked on a revised edition of the book “Salt & Pepper” (Broadway Books, 1999), which took me to Malaysia twice in 1998, I made the dish using local corn so that it could be photographed. It was, as it had been then, a revelation of simplicity and deliciousness. Why didn’t I make it more often?, I wondered as I nibbled the remains of the photo shoot.
Fall is the perfect time for corn, and several local vendors are offering it at farmers markets. Local supermarkets have it right now, too, mounds of it, each ear still wrapped in its pale green husk, silks spilling out of the top like tiny ponytails. If you don’t grow your own, these are your best sources. The corn will be best, too, if you cook it as soon after bringing it home as possible. That said, if you put it in your refrigerator and forget it for a few days, it will still be pretty good.
For corn recipes from the Seasonal Pantry Archive, visit pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.
Here is my version of corn on the cob inspired by my visit to the Kuala Lumpur Night Market. If you grow your own corn, you’ll get closer to what I enjoyed in that far-away city by bringing a pot of salted water to a boil and then picking and shucking the corn so that you can plunge it into the boiling water seconds after it is off the stalk. Pull it out of the water bath after just 2 to 3 minutes, shake off excess water and sprinkle it all over with finely ground white pepper.